USAF Faces Challenge in Meeting Mattis’ Readiness Goal

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson testifies before the Senate Armed Services readiness subcomittee in Washington on Oct. 10. C-SPAN screenshot.

The Air Force is shifting resources and manpower to the squadrons that are “most relevant to a high-end fight” in the wake of a directive from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to increase readiness on key airframes by the end of the fiscal year, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said on Wednesday.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services readiness subcommittee, Wilson said the service has identified 204 of its most important units and it is striving to get 80 percent of them “properly trained and equipped” by the end of 2020, which is “six years faster than we projected before we developed our recovery plan,” she said.

This pace might not be fast enough, however. Mattis on Sept. 17 issued a memo to the Air Force and Navy to get their mission capable rates for F-35s, F-16s, F-22s, and F-18s to 80 percent by the end of Fiscal 2019, significantly higher than current rates. “The Department of Defense is working closely with the Departments of the Air Force and Navy to achieve Secretary Mattis’s directive,” the Pentagon said in a statement late Tuesday.

This directive will be challenging, particularly for the F-22 and F-35 fleet, said Wilson and USAF Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein on Wednesday. The F-22 fleet has maintenance issues that limit its availability, specifically related to the aircraft’s low-observable paint, which makes routine maintenance difficult and time-consuming.

The same goes for the F-35, which also faces a myriad of other maintenance issues that have limited its mission capable rate to less than 60 percent. For example, the aircraft’s autonomic logistics information system has been challenging, and frustrating, for maintainers to operate. To address this, the Air Force and Lockheed Martin program managers at Nellis AFB, Nev., have developed a new troubleshooting system it calls “Mad Hatter” to address ALIS’s challenges.

The F-35 also has notable problems with maintenance and parts backlog, to the point where the Joint Program Office director and the Government Accountability Office has said it threatens the health and viability of the program itself. Wilson said Wednesday the Air Force is working with the Joint Program Office to find ways to “get the supply line right so our operational squadrons can met the goal that the Secretary of Defense has set out for us.”

The Air Force is also working to fill its cockpits to address its pilot shortfall, and increase the readiness of fighter fleets. In Fiscal 2017, the Air Force trained 1,160 pilots. That number will grow to 1,311 in Fiscal 2019, and up to 1,500 by Fiscal 2022. To accomplish this, the service is increasing the operational training infrastructure, ranges, and airspace, as well as increase the use of simulation, Wilson said.